Why Libraries Are Good Investments
A year ago, the New York Public Library (NYPL) asked me to make a major gift to its US$1 billion capital program. I thought the library’s strategic plan — to reinvigorate the library system and make it more efficient from a cost perspective and much more user-friendly — was exceptionally well put together. As a longtime library board member, I didn’t need any special solicitation. It took me all of three or four minutes to say yes.
I believe in the three-part vision that was put forward. The first part is the dramatic expansion of the 42nd Street branch, the headquarters of the library, to create a major new lending library co-located with the existing world-class research library. Second is the enhancement of the very powerful hub system in the city’s boroughs, dramatically adding access to computers and the Internet so that we can provide a gateway for middle-class and lower-income residents who want to fully join the digital world. The third part is a rapid digitization of the library’s collections so they will be available not just to the people of New York but globally.
All these changes will drive new traffic to the library system — whether in person or online. The changes at the main 42nd Street branch alone, including an architectural transformation of the interior, will generate a lot of excitement and could increase the physical traffic from 1 million to 3.5 million people a year.
And those are just the immediate numbers. It’s stunning to think of the seminal thinkers, writers, and achievers who have been helped by the NYPL. Warren Buffett, who was a graduate student at Columbia University and spent a few years as a stockbroker on Wall Street, often used the library as a place to work and study. Barack Obama basically found his job as a community organizer through the NYPL.
The next generation is always looking for ways to get ahead, too, and in the United States it’s almost impossible to do that without academic achievement. Libraries provide an essential supplement to the education system. They offer much more than books. Their fixed asset base includes computers that are freely accessible to people for whom access might otherwise be unaffordable. Once people have been provided that digital access, along with a nurturing environment and physical resource material, they have the means to progress and be successful in the information age.
As for me, I have been going to libraries since I was 8 or 9 years old. The branch library near my home in northeast Philadelphia was a big, quiet place where you could find your own chair and your own table. Later, when I was at Yale University, I made the library my main place of study. I found it comforting and conducive to thought, in a way that my dorm room couldn’t be. I don’t think this is unusual. Many people prefer a location other than their homes to access material, think, and study.
The physical setting of the library provides that sort of separation. Not everyone needs it, but enough people do (and certainly enough people need computer access) to assure me that people will be going to libraries regardless of how much information becomes available on the Internet. This is especially true in a multicultural city like New York where there are vast differences in income and backgrounds and language skills.
There are challenges ahead. The worldwide decline in equity values will have a big negative impact on people’s ability to support all nonprofit institutions, and the NYPL is going to get caught up in that to some degree. It’s inevitable. Still, I am hopeful that over the long term, the funding will exist to fulfill the library’s plan.
One of the extraordinary things about the NYPL — about any public library, really — is that it is free. There isn’t much in life that is free, let alone the services of a great institution. All you have to do is walk in the front door — it’s accessible to anyone. That’s a pretty neat thing.
Stephen A. Schwarzman is the chairman and cofounder of The Blackstone Group. In March 2008, he made a gift of $100 million to the New York Public Library.